Brian Buttacavoli: “Don’t Take it Personally”

Radio Free Richmond


In my first year of teaching, I was told, “You can’t save them all. Don’t take it personally.” This statement is offensive, misguided and horribly inaccurate, but it is something that has been repeated to me year after year.  In 2012, West Contra Costa Unified released a Student Performance Analysis that showed just over half of WCC students were graduating from high school. — specifically, only 57% of all WCC students enrolled in public schools (California Department of Education, 2012).  Politicians, educational theorists, and community members all have different names for labeling this issue, but the reality is that our education system is very broken. Perhaps this is why there is repetition to that unfortunate statement, but how misguided would educators be if they truly believed students needed to be “saved.”

Today in Richmond, 74% of students in charter schools are socioeconomically disadvantaged.  For the past three years, I have been teaching at one of these schools. I find great pride in the work that I do. Before every exam, I tell my students, “You are bright, you are intelligent, and you are valued.  An assessment is a measure of achievement. It is not a measure of success.”  Last year 96% of my students passed the California High School Exit Exam compared to Richmond High School, which had a 66% passing rate (California Department of Education, 2014). Students are not in need of being saved. They are in need of resources and great opportunities. 

In 2014 the City announced a fantastic and unique scholarship opportunity for Richmond’s public school students.  Chevron created the “Richmond Promise" by donating $35 million to this city.  Its sole objective was to provide students with the financial assistance they desperately need for college. Immediately, I thought of my students. I saw this as an opportunity for a new Richmond: a place where opportunities were not limited and a place where my students would be supported with the resources they deserve. 

Unfortunately, when the Richmond City Council began discussing this issue, it was quickly determined that only some students living in Richmond would be eligible. Conversations regarding student selection, financial sustainability, and pilot programs quickly became the central topics of City Council meetings. As a result, a perverse debate for charter school inclusion in the Richmond Promise program began.

The unfortunate reality is that without the Richmond Promise, many of our students would not be able to sustain the financial burden of higher education. My former student, Alejandro Delgado, is a perfect example.  Last year he was accepted into his dream school, Penn State University.  But instead of attending this school, he is currently attending College of Marin, a local 2-year college.  This circumstance was not an issue of academic capability, determination, or resilience. This was a financial decision. Even with Federal Pell Grant and Financial Aid assistance, Alejandro and his family still could not afford the out of pocket costs. If we claim that education is a basic human right, then we must also argue that college should not be exclusive to students who have financial opportunities that others do not.

Needless to say, I was offended by the City Council’s debate over charter school inclusion to the Richmond Promise. My students should not be penalized because they are seeking alternative education opportunities from different public schools. Hard working students like Alejandro should be able to access their educational goals with opportunities such as the Richmond Promise. In addition, most of the conversation regarding charter schools by City Council members was unfairly distorted. Charter schools were created to bring educational equity to families that were not being served by the traditional system.

While 96% of students passing the California High School Exit Exam is something to celebrate, I could not help but feel guilty for the 4% of my students that did not pass. I felt that was on me. It is my job as an educator to make sure 100% of students have the ability to access the resources they need to be successful, not just the majority. In that same light, it is the responsibility of City Council members to make sure all Richmond students have access to the resources this city offers. So this is not really about my students, this is about all Richmond students. This is about justice.

During my time as a Teach for America corps member, we would often echo, “One day, all children will have the opportunity to an excellent education.” There was not an asterisk next to that statement excluding charter school students.  How dare city council members attempt to dictate which of our students deserve access to public opportunities intended for Richmond children.

So to those who say, “You can’t save them all. Don’t take it personally,” let the record show, I do take it personally. This is our community, and it is time we invested in all the youth of Richmond. I hope that the City Council members will see that all of our students are valuable. Richmond California is the City of Pride and Purpose. I am proud to be a teacher at a public charter school in Richmond. I hope the City Council will take pride and support all our students with this important opportunity.

By: Brian Buttacavoli, 10th Grade English Language Arts Teacher at Making Waves Academy Public Charter School


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